Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Hollywood's Greatest Mystery Solved at Last - The Inspiration Behind Tinseltown
2015 Edgar award winner for Best Fact Crime Book, William J Mann, joins us today to tell us about the inspiration behind his winning book: Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood.
I was nine years old when I first learned about the murder of 1920s movie director William Desmond Taylor. Fascinated by old Hollywood, I devoured every history of motion pictures I could find. Since I was also I fan of mysteries, I was especially intrigued by the Taylor killing, which had never been solved. The movie books explained how the Taylor scandal led to the rise of film censorship, but what I wanted to know was who pulled the trigger on that cold night in 1922.
Nine decades ago, when the director’s body was found stretched out on his living room floor, the case was an international cause célèbre. The fuss wasn’t so much about Taylor as it was about the two leading suspects: glamorous movie stars Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter. For the Hearst press (the 1920s version of TMZ and Gawker) the Taylor case had everything: illicit affairs, drug addicts, jealous starlets, gangsters, aliases, secret lives. Even two decades later, a new clue in the Taylor murder was enough to grab the front page. And while the once-notorious crime would eventually pass out of the larger public memory, it has remained for movie buffs and true-crime aficionados the holy grail of unsolved murders.
In the midst of researching my books about Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Streisand, I occasionally took a much-needed respite from all the diva Sturm und Drang and got lost among the arcana of Taylor’s murder, reviving my early fascination with the case. Much of the original reporting has been collected and posted online by the industrious Bruce Long at his site Taylorology. Night after night I’d read through the details Bruce had compiled. I began to wonder if I could I actually solve this. Was it even possible at this late date to sort through nearly a hundred years of errors and inaccuracies and finally crack this very cold case?
Others had tried. In 1986, Sidney Kirkpatrick had written an entertaining book called A Cast of Killers that detailed the attempts made by the director King Vidor to find Taylor’s killer. Kirkpatrick fingered Charlotte Shelby, Mary Miles Minter’s monstrous mother, as the culprit. But too many of the “facts” in A Cast of Killers turned out to be false or incomplete, as Bruce Long documented at Taylorology. Such errata didn’t necessarily mean Vidor’s solution was wrong, of course, just the way he’d attempted to prove it. Still, some took great offense with A Cast of Killers. Robert Giroux, chairman of the publishing house Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, was so incensed that in 1990 he penned his own tome, A Deed of Death, proposing that an anonymous gangster had fired the fatal bullet. The feud between Kirkpatrick and Giroux played out on the letter pages of the New York Times, and was enough for Otto Friedrich, in his Times review of A Deed of Death, to call for a moratorium on any further discussion of the Taylor case. Despite all the attempts to unravel it, Friedrich wrote, “the mystery remains pretty much a mystery, and now is time to forget it.”
Forget it? Not likely.
Justice, after all, had been denied to a very real man, a flawed but decent human being who’d gotten caught up in a whirlwind of conflicting ambitions at a very transformative moment in the history of the American film industry. A leader in the movement to stave off movie censorship, Taylor would have seen the irony in his death helping to guarantee it. And Normand and Minter, the two women at the heart of the mystery, were hardly the ethereal, cloying, silent-movie stereotypes that they’d later be portrayed as being, but rather vibrant women with surprisingly contemporary worldviews.
What’s more, the cover-up of the crime was conducted by people high up in the film industry, for reasons that had as much to do with economic control as fears of bad publicity. Taylor’s murder occurred at the very moment Hollywood was transforming itself into Big Business, when the studio system that defined how American movies were made, sold and shown was just being created. Surely this story still mattered, I reasoned, for both its human and its historical resonance.
Armed with original police reports, newspaper articles and “confessions” I’d found on Taylorology, I set out to conduct my own research. Foraging through forgotten files at the National Archives and leafing through long-moldering dockets in state courthouses, I began to formulate a very different picture of the crime. A FOIA request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation brought a game-changing collection of documents and photographs. Without such material as I now held in my hands, previous investigators had been unable to see the full picture. But now I could solve the crime.
Once I began writing the story, I realized I needed to do more than just unravel the mystery and bring some justice to Taylor. I needed to tell the whole sweeping saga of Los Angeles in the 1920s, and why covering up the crime had been so necessary. I needed to tell the stories not just of Taylor, Minter, and Normand, but also of the gangsters and two-bit hoods (Nathanael West’s “locusts”) who operated in the shadows of Tinseltown—people like Margaret “Gibby” Gibson, an ambitious actress for whom the end always justified the means, and her partners in crime Don Osborn and Joe Pepa. I also needed to tell the stories of the men who ruled like petty kings over the expanding industry—people like Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount; Marcus Loew, the founder of MGM; and Will H. Hays, who became forever known as the censor of the movies.
But for all that essential context, Tinseltown remains the story of a murder—the story of a single, soft-nosed bullet that ended a good man’s life and left investigators stumped for nearly a century. Finally we know who fired that shot, and why.
You can get your own copy of Tinseltown here.